BY John D'Emilio ON June 23, 2017
I have been thoroughly enjoying my explorations of collections at the Gerber/Hart Library and Archives. Depending on the person or the organization, I come away with a deeper or a broader knowledge than I already had of topics in the history of LGBT life and activism since the 1960s. I love encountering the particular personal stories or the forgotten dramatic moments that emerge from individual documents in a collection and that are the stuff that makes history come alive. But, I also have to admit that, with my own history of activism and research, I haven’t found myself dramatically revising what I thought I knew.
Until now, that is. The collection I’ve explored most recently are the papers of James Bussen, a Chicago activist who, in the early 1970s, was a founder of the local Dignity chapter. He remained continuously active in the organization and later served as its national president in the second half of the 1980s. For those who don’t know, Dignity was for decades the primary organization giving voice to LGBT Catholics.
Before the 1960s, the Roman Catholic Church was like every other Christian community of faith. Homosexuality was a sin. Some denominations may have incorporated medical frameworks into their language, but there was little evidence of a significant move toward acceptance and approval. That began to change in the 1960s as some church activists and reformers began to speak out in support of gays and lesbians. This tendency accelerated significantly in the 1970s and 1980s. A number of religious denominations began to revisit official teachings on homosexuality and open themselves up to acceptance of LGBT members.
The Roman Catholic Church, however, stood out as moving distinctly against the grain. In October 1986, with the approval of Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Ratzinger issued a “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexuals.” It took a strong and uncompromising stand against any expression of homosexuality. The document described homosexual behavior as “an intrinsic moral evil” and a homosexual orientation as “an objective disorder.” In posing the question as to whether being a sexually active gay man was “a morally acceptable option,” it offered a categorically unambiguous answer: “It is not.” This 1986 document came to define Roman Catholicism as unremittingly and inflexibly homophobic. There seemed to be no possibility of change. And when Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict in 2005, it only confirmed this perspective.
After just a bit of reading through the material in the Bussen papers, however, it became abundantly – and surprisingly – clear to me that one of the effects of the 1986 Letter was to erase from my historical memory, and I suspect the memory of many others as well, a rich history of LGBT activism within the Catholic Church in the U.S. in the 1970s and early 1980s. At the simplest level, Dignity grew as an organization with impressive speed. Founded right at the beginning of the 1970s in the wake of the energy released by Stonewall and gay liberation, it expanded from seven chapters in 1973 to 70 by 1977 when it held its 3rd biennial convention in Chicago. 430 people registered for the national gathering of an organization that had grown to 4000 members. There were very few LGBT organizations of that size in the 1970s.
But it wasn’t only about size. Dignity projected a strong message of confidence and militancy. In its May 1973 newsletter, the editor wrote: “A force is growing within the Church. It will not be stopped.” At the end of the decade, the newsletter directed these words to its members: “it will not be theologians sitting in their offices who will one day decide that homosexuality makes sense . . . theologians will come around to thinking that only after a good number of gay people have already made sense of their own lives.” In other words, come out. Show your pride in how you live and what you do.
The Church, too, was responding in encouraging ways. In 1976, the Young Adult Ministry of the U.S. Catholic Conference issued a very positive statement about gay men and lesbians. At the local level, Dignity found itself in dialogue with a number of the more liberal Catholic bishops. Also in 1976, Dignity received an invitation to attend the “Call to Action” Conference of the Catholic Church in the U.S. The Conference passed the following resolution: “That the Church actively seek to serve the pastoral needs of those persons with a homosexual orientation; to root out those structures and attitudes which discriminate against homosexuals as persons; and to join the struggle by homosexual men and women for their basic constitutional rights to employment, housing, and immigration.”
The statement took me by surprise. It was far more positive than anything I might have imagined coming from the Catholic Church. It also provides context for the 1986 Letter of Cardinal Ratzinger. Rather than a simple articulation of the standard teachings of Catholicism, it represented an aggressive assault upon serious grassroots efforts that were stirring things up and provoking progressive change.
I came away from Jim Bussen’s papers with a very strong sense that there’s much to be learned by researching the history of Catholic LGBT activism and the Church’s response in the 1970s and 1980s. Bussen’s papers, other relevant collections at Gerber/Hart, and many that I’m certain exist in archives around the country will provide the materials. Without doubt, there’s a book waiting to be written. I hope someone seizes the opportunity – unless I beat you to it!